One of the first ever open world games gets a remake, but how does the ambitious original stand-up almost 20 years later?
If you remember the original Outcast, then you must have been a PC gamer during the format’s first golden age. Originally released in 1999, it was typical for a PC game of that era: ferociously ambitious, technologically advanced, and more than a little flawed. It was never a big hit even at the time, but it has a loyal enough group of fans to have enabled a re-release in 2010. This though is a complete remake, and for better and worse it shares exactly the same qualities as the original.
Outcast’s relative obscurity is no doubt due to Belgian developer Appeal and original French publisher Infogrames. We highlight their nationality not just as an explanation of why the game was largely ignored outside of Europe, but to highlight the influence the game takes from classic Franco-Belgian sci-fi – the sort of comic books that inspired the movie Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and many 8-bit and 16-bit video games from the region.
In today’s more homogenised video game world such influences are rare, even if Outcast’s plot is less peculiar than it first appears. You’re cast as an ex-U.S. Navy SEAL who is tasked with escorting three scientists to a parallel dimension, in order to recover a probe that is in danger of creating a black hole that could destroy the Earth. And then before you can say ‘TV Tropes’ he’s proclaimed the chosen one by the natives.
The parallel world is alien but with a technology roughly equivalent to medieval Europe, except everyone’s got ray guns and teleportation portals. This is never satisfactorily explained but there is a neat narrative twist that explains why the various tribes are at war, and cements the game as real science fiction and not just sci-fi fantasy. It’s just a shame that the script and characters aren’t better, to the point where you assume the black hole was actually created by the protagonist’s lack of charisma.
Open world games are often thought of as a modern invention, but the concept was commonplace in the ‘90s, even if the implantation was limited by the technology of the time. Some even claim Outcast was the first true open world game, but while it’s clearly not it certainly was an important milestone in the field. But its big gimmick wasn’t just its, relatively, large world but the unusual voxel-based graphics it used to portray it, which allowed for more realistic landscapes and destruction effects.
The technology in this remake is more ordinary but it still retains the same basic art style, including the hilariously goofy visor that the main character is always wearing and some very wooden animation. The latter is part of the charm but on the PlayStation 4 the frame rate is very uneven, and can cause real problems during combat.
One element of open world design that earlier games were often very keen on, and which nowadays still gets overlooked, is the idea that the various non-player characters have a life outside of waiting for you to come and talk to them. Outcast gets that across very well, as you explore the different continents doing simple side quests and trying to start a revolution.
But while it’s easy to marvel at Outcast’s ambitions and world-building the truth is nothing in terms of the gameplay is anywhere near as interesting. The third person combat is unusual, with some neat gadgets like teleport pads that give firefights a distinct tactical edge, but the actual movement and gunplay is still clumsy and lethargic. It is better than the original, but that’s not really saying much.
This wouldn’t have been such a problem if there was more of a role-playing element to the game, beyond just exploration and character interaction. And while a huge amount of work has gone into the world and its lore the dialogue itself is often long-winded and dull. Unlike modern games nothing feels like a real conversation and you’re just working through every possible dialogue option until you’ve milked each character for every last piece of information.
Another unfortunate problem is the terrible voiceovers, not just the performances but simply the quality of the recording. They seem to be exactly the same ones used in the original game, but they sound like everyone’s shouting at you through a closed bathroom door. Which stands in unfortunate contrast to the excellent, and obviously remastered, soundtrack.
Since it only exists thanks to a Kickstarter campaign, Outcast: Second Contact has clearly been made primarily for existing fans. But that’s great, and we’re sure they’ll be very happy with it. The game does have some historical significance, and was clearly well ahead of its time in several areas. But as interesting as that is in theory, it doesn’t make the game itself any more entertaining.
Outcast: Second Contact
In Short: A great remaster of a forgotten almost-classic, but most of its flaws were already obvious 18 years ago and this does little to improve any of them.
Pros: Unusual open world environment and art design, with an interesting story and well thought out lore. Great soundtrack.
Cons: The combat and movement is slow and awkward, and not much fun. And the same can be said for the conversations. Some serious frame rate problems.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, and PC
Release Date: 14th November 2017
Age Rating: 12